Hot buttons and the people who push them-2

Continuing yesterday’s posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.

In fact, the free speech claims spouted by these newspapers have a strong flavor of hypocrisy. Many western countries have compromised their free speech rights long ago by enforcing them selectively, reinforcing the sense in the Muslim world that only they can be targets of such humor. Some are quite brazen about the fact that Muslim sensitivities can be ignored while those of others are protected. And Muslims are told they must either accept this state of affairs or leave the country.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. “Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don’t talk about,” he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. “Evenhandedness cannot be a goal,” he says. “It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there.”

This is an amazingly frank admission of the dirty little secret that the media picks and chooses whose feelings they wish to protect and whose they can ignore. It is also startlingly self-contradictory. On the one hand, Koeppel says that they were challenging a growing tendency to “self-censorship in delicate matters.” On the other, he justifies the existence of “taboos, the things they don’t talk about.” What are such taboos if not topics that are self-censored?

What this proliferation of republication of the cartoons has done is to further strengthen the suspicion that there is a deliberate campaign going on to disparage the beliefs and sensibilities of Muslims. And there are those on all sides who are intent on promoting this so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the west and see benefits to be gained from fanning this conflagration. On the one side, it makes it easier, for example, to build the case for a US attack on Syria or Iran, the enemies du jour of the US. On the other side, it may make it easier to portray the west as uniformly anti-Muslim and to justify attacks on any westerner and to strengthen the hands of those who seek to impose theocracies on predominantly Muslim countries.

So what can be learned from all this? For me, it reinforces my belief that while people have the right to be offensive if they choose, they should not expect to be admired for doing so. I do not admire the newspapers for what they did, even though they had every right to print the cartoons.

People have all kinds of hot buttons. It seems to be an ironclad rule of human nature that the more buttons you have and the hotter those buttons are, the more people who will be eager to push them just to see you explode. Any person who can remember their middle school years can recall the hapless students who could be counted on to react angrily to some particular slight, and how others would exploit this for easy amusement. The taunts directed at the parentage of someone is a schoolyard staple and you would think that by the time people reached adulthood, they would have wised up and got hardened to this tired ploy at provoking them.

But no. Even adults fall for this kind of provocation and it is worse because now they have the ability to wreak great damage in response, as we have seen with these riots. There is nothing you can do to prevent this except to stop being such an easy target. This means realizing when someone is deliberately trying to provoke you, and ignoring them. The more you react, the more they attack.

Practicing such restraint is not easy. All of us have our personal sacred cows and are prone to anger over some slight directed at them. It takes considerable self-control to not blow up in response. But there is something about religious sacred cows that make things worse. I think that this is because when people’s religious sensitivities are slighted, their anger is fueled by a sense of righteous indignation, that they are defending the honor of god, and that god will look favorably on them for their outrage. A moment’s reflection should convince any rational person that the idea of any mere mortal defending god’s honor is laughable on its face since god can presumably take care of him/herself.

Now we are seeing that other publications have decided that they too can play the same game as Jyllands-Posten (the original publisher of the cartoons that caused the controversy). Syndicated cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall reports that:

A European Muslim website has posted a cartoon depicting Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines,” the site explains, “we certainly do not want to fall behind.”

And an Iranian newspaper has solicited cartoons about the holocaust of Jews and is challenging the newspapers that published and republished the Prophet Mohammed cartoons to show their true commitment to free speech and their religious impartiality by publishing the twelve “winning” cartoons as well.

“It will be an international cartoon contest about the Holocaust,” said Farid Mortazavi, the graphics editor for Hamshahri newspaper – which is published by Teheran’s conservative municipality.

He said the plan was to turn the tables on the assertion that newspapers can print offensive material in the name of freedom of expression.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” he said.

Jyllands-Posten has already said that they will not publish the holocaust cartoons, further reinforcing the belief in the Muslim world that it is only Islam that can serve as a target for religious skewering in the west.

As Justin Raimondo points out about the proposed holocaust cartoons:

Of course, the publication of such cartoons would be illegal in most states of the European Union, as well as Canada, and the publishers, as well as the artists, would probably be thrown in jail and forced to issue a groveling apology. Rose is supposedly against any religion demanding “special treatment,” but apparently there is at least one exception.

This issue has nothing to do with “freedom of speech.” The government of Denmark is not about to prosecute Jyllands-Posten, nor will the EU – although they could do so, given the existence of “hate speech” legislation signed into law in both cases.

The violent reaction is being portrayed as something that happens mainly with Muslims. But in becoming violent in their actions, the Muslims who were doing so were following in a long tradition of religious groups taking to the streets in response to seeming provocations. Juan Cole points out that such violent reactions were routine in the Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland.

It seems amazing to me that we have reverted to middle school playground behavior, where the taunting and goading of one child by another is repaid in kind. We are now in a race to the bottom of offensiveness, competing in a game of chicken to see which group can come up with religiously offensive cartoons that others will not publish.

It is not easy for people to take a detached view when their cherished beliefs are ridiculed. The people who like to push other people’s buttons are often ingenious about finding out what works and don’t hesitate to do use that information to create anger.

Which bring me to the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. More about him and his group tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier

The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Wednesday, February 15 at 7:00pm and again on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm. A panel discussion with some Vietnam vets will follow the 2/15 screening.

Both screenings are being held at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person.

You can see the trailer of the film here from where I have also taken this background information, and which also gives screening information aroun d the country:

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. “The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners,” goes one piece of testimony, “utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, ‘This dude fell down some steps.'”

Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.

Hot buttons and the people who push them

Like most people, I have been dismayed by the demonstrations, the arson, the boycott threats, etc. caused by the publication in Denmark of twelve cartoons that were seen as disrespectful to Islam. I have resisted commenting on it because there was so much coverage that anything I would say would seem superfluous.

But it seems some important aspects of the story are not being told. The coverage has settled into a familiar storyline: The countries of the Islamic world do not understand western concepts of free speech, not to mention western humor in which no sacred cow is immune from skewering. Furthermore those countries are full of irrational religious fanatics who respond with violence to things that offend them, rather than peaceful dialogue.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the person who decided to publish the cartoons issued a statement that reinforces this view.

“This is about standing for fundamental values that have been the (foundation) for the development of Western democracies over several hundred years, and we are now in a situation where those values are being challenged,” he said.

“I think some of the Muslims who have reacted very strongly to these cartoons are being driven by totalitarian and authoritarian impulses, and the nature of these impulses is that if you give in once they will just put forward new requirements.”

Once the media finds a storyline that is congenial to its readers (and this one definitely reinforces a positive self-image of the west combined with a stereotype of Muslims who currently regarded with suspicion and hostility) it usually tends not to delve too deeply into more subtle issues. But in this case, when you do so, you find that the story is more complex than has been portrayed.

For instance, consider the timeline of this story that is presented. The cartoons were first published on September 30, 2005.

Approximately two weeks later, nearly 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully in Copenhagen. In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests.”

On January 10, 2006, the cartoons were reprinted in the small Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet (circulation: 5.000).

On January 30, the Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten apologizes, saying “In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.”

So far, this story seems reasonable. A newspaper publishes something edgy, some people get upset and protest, and the newspaper apologizes for unwittingly causing offense but defends its rights to free speech. This kind of thing happens routinely.

But apparently some other newspapers saw this apology as some kind of free speech violation, and the Danish newspaper’s apology as capitulation. In order to assert the right to free speech, on February 1, the cartoons were reprinted in the French daily France Soir, and many other European newspapers. And this is what has led to the big demonstrations that we see going on now, with some Muslim communities seeing this as a deliberate insult to their religion.

The main issue of rights seem to be fairly clear. The Danish newspaper had every right to publish the cartoons. People who find the cartoons offensive have every right to protest in non-violent forms, such as holding demonstrations, and even organizing boycotts and breaking off diplomatic relations.

In apologizing, the newspaper was not being censored by governments, it was just saying it was sorry for causing offense. Newspapers depend on advertisers and routinely avoid printing some things to avoid losing readers.

That is the standard storyline. But when you look underneath it, the division between right and wrong, good and bad, start getting blurry, and the motives of the people who published the cartoons become increasingly suspect.

For one thing, the cartoons about Prophet Mohammed were actually solicited by the cultural editor of the newspaper not for their humor but in order to test Muslim sensitivities. Flemming Rose is supposed to have done so because he had heard that cartoonists “were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children’s biography of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” since depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as they are considered idolatrous.

Furthermore, the very same Danish newspaper had rejected cartoons three years earlier that made fun of Christianity because they feared they would cause offense.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.

The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

Zieler received an email back from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

What this demonstrates is a certain level of hypocrisy because the editor felt that the sensitivities of Muslims were not worth considering but that of Christian were.

The story gets even murkier. Justin Raimondo points out that Flemming Rose seems to be an admirer of those in the US like Daniel Pipes who are “fanatically hostile to Islam.” So the whole story of a somewhat naïve editor who innocently publishes cartoons that caused a surprising amount of offense starts becoming unraveled and becomes more and more like a case of deliberate provocation aimed at Muslims.

And it gets worse. More on this tomorrow. . .

POST SCRIPT: Mainstream Churches Fight Back

It looks like mainstream churches are getting fed up with fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Commenter Cathie points out this notice for “Evolution Sunday” organized by them (now past, unfortunately). But it is a good sign. Here is the introduction to their website. You can check if your own church is here, or encourage them to join for next year.

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

The New York Times reports that “more than 10,000 ministers from around the country had signed [An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science], which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is “a foundational scientific truth.” To reject it, the letter continues, “is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, “A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.”

And don’t forget, Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species both occur in 2009. Mark your calendars now for the big party that is sure to happen on February 12th of that year.

The divide between modernists and medievalists

The current attacks on science in the US are often portrayed as a battle between religion and science but that is not really the case. The widespread beliefs about the rapture (taking seriously the claim that 44% of Americans believe that the rapture will certainly or most probably occur within their lifetimes) and the attempts at overthrowing evolution by natural selection because of religious reasons signals something more serious.

When these beliefs are coupled with the fact that 53% reject common ancestors for humans and apes and that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that “God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years,” indicates that what we have here in the US is a far deeper and more disturbing phenomenon. I think that it is fair to say that it pretty much represents a rejection of modernity and a yearning for an almost medieval, pre-Renaissance way of thinking.

The great divide in the current culture wars in the US is not between religious people on the one side and scientists on the other. It is between those who are modernist and those who are medieval. The modernist camp contains both religious and secular people. Religious people who are modernists believe that god somehow works in the world and in their lives, but don’t seek an explicit mechanism. They leave god out of the secular world and science. The medievalists on the other hand are rejecting almost entirely the modern worldview, arguing that religious doctrine must take precedence over everything else and that whenever science and religion are in opposition, it is religious beliefs that must take precedence.

It seems (to me at least) that if post-renaissance life reveals anything at all, it is that we are more likely to get useful information and results from putting our faith in science to make progress and solve problems than in praying for solutions. This is not to promote science triumphalism. Science and scientists can and do make mistakes and one should not yield to them sole decision making power, even over important and esoteric scientific questions.

What I am saying is that is absurd to reject those scientific theories and methods that have brought us to where we are because of religious objections, which is what the opponents of modernism are essentially advocating.

The rejection of modernity represented by these religious beliefs seems to me to be similar to the attitudes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In both cases, these groups identified the current state of life as morally iniquitous and identified social and moral well-being with a return to “traditional values.” They did this by rejecting all the trappings of modernity (TV, clothing, films, popular music, etc.) and tried to return their countries to a more primitive lifestyle, seeing that as somehow morally superior. In the case of Afghanistan this was driven by religion and in Cambodia by ideology, but the end result in both countries was similar – “back-to-basics” on steroids.

This rejection of modernism by about 150 million Americans (i.e., the people who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis) is disturbing because it means that the foundations on which US society is built is shaky. What may save the situation is that in the US, the rejection of modernity, unlike in Afghanistan or Cambodia, is somewhat contradictory in practice. While appealing for a return to “traditional values,” the groups advocating this show no indication whatsoever of giving up all the trappings and luxuries that modernity provides. They want to be worthy of heaven, but will hold onto their iPods until they are pried from their “cold, dead hands” as Charlton Heston famously said about his right to have guns.

Take for example stem-cell research. Currently, religious objections in the US have resulted in other nations taking the lead in this area. Since no major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases using this new technology have yet been achieved, it seems like it costs nothing to reject this technology. But as soon as it produces a treatment or cure for a major disease, I predict that religious objections to this research in the US will collapse. Whatever their religious objections, people who have the disease will demand the treatment and the authorities will have no choice but to acquiesce.

With the Taliban or Khmer Rouge, they would have just said “tough.” If the price for moral purity is a primitive lifestyle and early death, then so be it. But somehow I cannot see the members of the fundamentalist Christian community in its suburban megachurches in affluent communities, people who think that having a long, materially rich life is a sign of god’s favor, being willing to accept that tradeoff.

But can you essentially reject the premise of the scientific approach while clinging to the fruits that science provides? I don’t think so, at least not over the long run. Collisions between those two sets of values is inevitable and whether we like it or not, scientific advances always trump religious objections.

And ultimately, this is why science always wins in the end. Not because it is obviously true or always correct or aesthetically appealing or emotionally satisfying but because it is just too useful and practical to reject.

The religious beliefs of scientists-2

In yesterday’s post, we saw that the degree of belief in a personal god or in immortality among scientists had not changed much over time, staying at roughly around 40% for nearly a century, as long as one used a broad definition of scientist.

But the picture changed quite dramatically when one looked at more elite groups of scientists, those who were acknowledged by their peers as having done superior work. For this group, the figure started lower (around 30% in 1914) and dropped dramatically (to less than 10%) by 1998. The results of this research by Larson and Witham become even more interesting when disaggregated by academic discipline.
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The religious beliefs of scientists-1

Are science and religion compatible? There are two ways to approach this question. The first is a philosophical one where one tries to see if there are any irreconcilable contradictions between the beliefs and practices of science and those of theistic religious beliefs. The second is an empirical one where one surveys scientists to see if a significant number of scientists are also religious.

In the first case, I discussed in an earlier posting that all that being a scientist committed one to was methodological naturalism, while denying the existence of god required a commitment to philosophical naturalism as well. So there seems to be no inherent difficulty with being a god-believing scientists.

What about the empirical results? In a recent post, I speculated on the possibility of a high level of atheism among clerics but said that unfortunately it would be hard to get honest poll results on this question. But scientists are not so hesitant to answer this question and such surveys have been done and the results are extremely interesting.

These surveys were done early in the twentieth century (in 1914 and 1933) by James H. Leuba and repeated at the end of the century by Edward J. Larson
 and Larry Witham who published their findings under the title Leading scientists still reject God in the journal Nature (Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998)).

What the earlier Leuba studies found in his survey of 1,000 scientists in general, selected randomly from the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS) was that in 1914, 58% of scientists expressed “doubt or disbelief” in god, with the number rising to 67% in 1933.

Larson and Witham’s repeat of this study in 1996 using the current edition of the same source (now called American Men and Women of Science) to select their sample and found the number to be 60.7%. So these numbers have remained fairly steady.

In fact, the 1996 survey found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” This is a sizeable number (close to the figures in the 1914 and 1933 surveys), indicating that, at least empirically, there seems to be little problem with being a scientist and also believing in the existence of even an activist, interventionist god who directly answers individual prayers.

But the really interesting changes have come from the beliefs of a more elite group of scientists. One criticism about the studies quoted so far was that perhaps the selecting of the sample of scientists was not discriminating enough. Larson and Witham quote Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins as criticizing their 1996 study on these grounds saying: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.” (my emphasis)

But how does one define a “real” scientist as opposed to, presumably, a run-of-the-mill scientist. It turns out that Leuba had also surveyed the beliefs of “greater” scientists, using as his sample those scientists designated as such by the editors of the AMS. He found the rate of “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” to be higher that that of the general scientist population, being 70% in 1914 and as much as 85% in 1934. So it seems as if the more eminent one becomes, the less one believes.

In repeating this particular aspect of the study in 1998, Larson and Witham were hampered by the fact that the editors of American Men and Women of Science stopped designating people as “greater scientists.” So Larson and Witham used as their sample source the member list of the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). What they found was that the number among this group who expressed “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” was a whopping 93%.

Here are the detailed results:

Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
Belief in immortality 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Some interesting questions arise from these results. Belief in a personal god has dropped by half from 1914 to 1933 and again by half by 1998. The latter drop may have as a contributing factor the fact that the NAS members are probably a more elite group than the “greater scientists” designated by the editors of AMS. But that means that religious beliefs among elite scientists are either decreasing with time and/or with increasing eminence.

In tomorrow’s posting, I will look at this data (and others that give the breakdown according to scientific discipline) more closely and speculate as to the reasons behind these results.

POST SCRIPT: More Iraq war lies surface

The British newspaper The Guardian reports on a yet another memo that reveals that all the talk by Bush and Blair about trying diplomacy was (surprise!) a sham and that they were going into Iraq whatever the UN said.

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 – nearly two months before the invasion – reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

What is even more astounding, the memo alleges that Bush was even prepared to try a Gulf of Tonkin-like act of trickery to create a pretext for war. “Mr. Bush told Mr Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours”. Mr Bush added: “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions].”

The British government has not denied the existence of the memo.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat acting leader, said last night: “The fact that consideration was apparently given to using American military aircraft in UN colours in the hope of provoking Saddam Hussein is a graphic illustration of the rush to war. It would also appear to be the case that the diplomatic efforts in New York after the meeting of January 31 were simply going through the motions.

“The prime minister’s offer of February 25 to Saddam Hussein was about as empty as it could get. He has a lot of explaining to do.”

One wonders why this kind of news gets so little coverage, and generates so little outrage, in the US.

Harry Belafonte and the politics of language

In 1946, George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language which is something that anyone interested in politics or writing should read because of the deep insights that Orwell provides about how to learn to write clearly, and the ways that language can be abused, especially by people trying to use it to serve political ends.

I was reminded of this article again by the flap created by Harry Belafonte when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit to Case today has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)

Critics have seized on his use of the word “terrorist” to condemn him. In this effort, any attempt to define the words “terror” and “terrorism” are carefully avoided because to do so is to risk finding that Belafonte might be onto something. Orwell points out that this is an old problem.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Here is the current version of this old problem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “terrorist”:

1. As a political term: a. Applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution, esp. to those connected with the Revolutionary tribunals during the ‘Reign of Terror’. b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.

2. Dyslogistically: One who entertains, professes, or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm; an alarmist, a scaremonger.

Even if one is given the freedom to tweak this definition to suit one’s own purposes, it is hard to objectively get the result that the user of such words is usually seeking. I recall a conversation with someone many years ago about the same word terrorism and to whom that word should apply. Instead of simply assuming that persons A, B, and C were terrorists and that X, Y, and Z were not as that person was doing, I asked that person to first come up with a definition of terrorism that did not do too much violence to its common meaning and then see how that definition applied to the different people. That way, one had a measure of the degree of terrorism perpetrated by any given individual or group.

It turned out that the person was unable to come with a definition that avoided the awkward result that either one or more of the people he approved of being labeled as a terrorist or a person he disliked not making the list. This problem existed even though he already had decided before trying to define the word who should be labeled a terrorist and who should not be. (The comic strip The Boondocks identifies a well-known person whom it would be hard to exclude under almost any objective definition of terrorist. And yet, most people would reject that label being applied to him.)

(This definition problem is similar to the demarcation problem that exists in science in which philosophers and historians of science have found it difficult to come up with definitions that have both necessary and sufficient criteria that enables one to judge whether a given theory is scientific or not. The problem is that all such definitions result in either something that is commonly accepted as being science being excluded or something that is clearly not accepted as science being included.)

Because of this, words like terrorism and democracy are used dishonestly. They have become political weapons. As an example, some of you may have observed how the language of reporting changed during the run-up to the attack on Iraq. National Public Radio reporters followed the lead of the US government and started referring to the Iraqi government as “Saddam Hussein’s regime” and to the members of his cabinet and armed forces as his “henchmen.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “regime” as: “A manner, method, or system of rule or government; a system or institution having widespread influence or prevalence. Now freq. applied disparagingly to a particular government or administration.”

And “henchman” is defined as “The personal attendant, ‘right-hand man’, or chief gillie of a Highland chief; hence, generally, a trusty follower or attendant who stands by the side of his chief or leader, and supports him in every case of need…A stout political supporter or partisan; esp. in U.S. ‘A mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another’

Using these definitions, one could just as easily refer to the US government as the “Bush regime” and to Cheney and Rumsfeld as his henchmen. But that is never done by the mainstream media. Not because it is not accurate but because these words have ceased to have any meaning and are now just verbal weapons, to be used only against political enemies.

As Orwell says:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

If Orwell were still living, he would have as a fresh example the phrase “collateral damage” to euphemize the “killing of innocent civilians.”

Once one has become sensitized to the way political language is used, one can see its abuses everywhere. As Orwell says: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” When it is not used in this way, “it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.””

This is why outspoken people like Harry Belafonte have to be lauded. They are rebels because they use language to say what they honestly think, and to clarify rather than obscure. Such people are seen as dangerous because they cause us to question our assumptions and the way we use language, and the way language is used to mislead.

POST SCRIPT: Some light relief

With all the bad news recently on the international and domestic fronts, one needs a little humor to get through it. So here are some items for your amusement.

* A greatest hits compilation of Bush’s bloopers, which includes the ever-popular “Fool me once.”

* I have always been intrigued by the ability of technology to change images pixel by pixel so that one image gradually morphs into another. See this for one of the best applications to politics.

* And check out this satire about the NSA wiretapping. (On a serious note, I have been linking recently to the excellent posts of Glenn Greenwald on this issue. If you want to hear the clearest spoken exposition of why the NSA wiretapping is illegal, watch him respond to a caller on the C-Span program Washington Journal.)

* And finally, The Daily Show has a hilarious report that thanks to one American hero who stood up for his free speech rights, it is now legal to moon people in Maryland. So not all the news is bad on the civil liberties front. Or should I say back?

Harry Belafonte

For those of you fortunate enough to be in the Cleveland area, Harry Belafonte has been invited by the University Program Board to speak at Case Western Reserve University. The talk will be in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. The talk is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For more information and to get tickets see here. (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)
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Is the Pope an atheist?

Let me begin by saying that this question is not aimed at the current Pope. I have no reason to believe that the present Pope is any less religious than his predecessors and, for all I know, may be the most pious of all the Popes. My question is really more general and deals with my suspicion that you are likely to find a high level of atheism amongst clergy and theologians, with the levels getting higher the more senior those people are.

The reason I pose the question is that it seems to me that the more one is steeped in religious matters and thinks about issues of doctrine, the more likely that one becomes an atheist. So my question would apply to all priests, rabbis, ayatollahs, mullahs, swamis, monks, theologians, and other religious scholars. Are you more likely to find atheists among those groups than in the general population? This is, of course, a question for which one can obtain an empirical answer. You could simply survey such people and report the results. The obvious catch is that one is unlikely to get an honest answer. Saying you are an atheist is probably a bad career move for clerics.

My belief that most people intimately involved with religion are likely to be atheists may seem to be counter-intuitive. After all, we associate these people with being more religious than the average person, not less. But the reasons for thinking so arise from looking at the usual factors that lead people to atheism.

Most people begin life growing up in religious homes and have some kinds of religious belief as children. So what makes some of them become atheists?

One factor has to be personal experiences of seemingly unjustified tragedy. To have loved ones, people who by any measure lived good and decent lives, suffer and perhaps die can shake the faith of some. But most ordinary people have the good fortune to usually experience just a very few such things personally. In such cases, one’s faith may be shaken but not broken. For some, it may even be an occasion to reinforce one’s faith as a coping mechanism.

But if many of one’s friends and relatives and acquaintances keep falling victim to suffering and illness and death, then you might begin to increasingly question god’s purpose and existence. And this is what happens to priests. They are constantly called upon to deal with this kind of problem. When religious people fall very sick or are the victims of tragedy, they immediately tend to call for the priest for support and prayer. So priests are constantly having to deal with the kinds of questions of meaning that the rest of us may have to deal with only a very few times in our lives. That must be tough to handle for any thoughtful person.

The second issue is that priests have studied theology and the origins of their religious texts more than other people. Hence they know (or must strongly suspect) that these documents are human creations with a somewhat dubious history. For example, the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There takes direct aim at the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence and finds it weak. Religious scholars know that the claim to textual infallibility is highly weak. Most lay people rarely think about these things but clergy cannot avoid it. They have to deal with these arguments and convince themselves that they can still believe what the Bible says. That cannot be easy.

Similarly most lay people do not really have to confront on a regular basis the major existential questions of meaning. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We also do not have to deal with, on a daily basis, knotty theological problems such as (for Christianity) the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, and the resurrection, not to mention all the other problems caused by stories in the Bible. But people are always asking priests to explain away these things to them, so priests cannot avoid repeatedly dealing with such questions, and even more troubling, have to come up with explanations that can overcome the questioner’s skepticism.

In the film Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character goes to mass every morning, waits for the priest after service, and then pops a theological curve ball at him, to the priest’s increasing exasperation. Questions that may only occasionally and passingly occur to lay people (such as why god would be so petty and vengeful to use bears to attack forty two children who merely called his prophet Elisha “baldy”) are constantly being asked of priests. What are occasional questions for us are asked of priests all the time. In a more extreme case, recently a lawsuit was filed by an atheist against a priest asking him to prove that Jesus existed. One can imagine that dealing with such things would wear them down

The final reason for my suspicion is that those priests who have risen in the hierarchy tend to be intellectuals and scholars. Such people have a natural tendency to try and tie ideas together, to make them internally consistent and coherent. Hence they are more likely to study other religions to see what commonalities and differences exist, and to try and reconcile religion with science. But that kind of thinking runs the great risk (if you are religious) of arriving at the conclusion that god does not exist, that all religions are wrong, and that the only worldview without irreconcilable contradictions is the atheistic one.

It is possible that the truly devout priest might develop a much stronger belief and faith because he or she needs it to overcome all these doubt-generating issues that are being constantly thrown at them. But apart from such exceptions, I hypothesize that priests are more likely to be atheists than the population at large, with the probabilities rising as one goes to the higher ranks of the clergy. Thus my question as to whether the Pope is an atheist. It is too bad that one cannot check this out.

In a previous post, I spoke about the fact that if more and more atheists are public about their beliefs, the climate might change since others will realize that atheists are all around them, living normal lives, and are not crazed, amoral, baby-eating, serial killers.

As examples, when I mentioned to a very religious cousin that I had become an atheist, she confessed that she too often wonders if there is any thing after this life and is reconciled to the fact that there may not be. A colleague at the university said that after he told people that he was an atheist, he was surprised at the number who said that they were too.

Maybe there is a potential snowball effect here. If enough people come out and say what they truly believe, then many more may recognize that they actually have been closet atheists all along, and had simply been denying it out of habit and convention or for fear of what others might think.

Who knows, it might reach a stage when so many people have openly said that they are atheists that even the Pope is comfortable coming out.

POST SCRIPT: Another religious furor over symbolism

In a recent post, I expressed bafflement as to why some religious people get so upset at perceived slights aimed at their religion. Now a full-blown international incident has been created by the publication of cartoons (first in Denmark and then in France) that allegedly disrespect the Prophet Mohammed.

The BBC reports “In diplomatic protests, Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, and Libya has closed its embassy in Copenhagen.” Boycotts are being threatened. All this fuss over cartoons? This is as silly as the so-called ‘war on Christmas’ in the US and its threats to boycott stores whose employees did not say “Merry Christmas.”.

In response, in order to defend speech rights, other newspapers in Europe have reprinted the cartoons. “The front page of France Soir on Wednesday carried the headline “Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God” and a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.”

People who make sweeping generalizations about religions or go out of their way to say nasty things about them may be not being very polite and sensitive. But why do religious people care what others think about their religion? Isn’t their faith strong enough to withstand ridicule?

In general I tend to be a first amendment absolutist and to oppose hate speech codes and other policies that try to stifle speech. People should be allowed to say obnoxious things if they want to as long as they are not disruptive or actually threatening other people with harm or creating a real and palpable danger of harm to others or all the other exceptions that the courts have ruled is consistent with first amendment rights.

The rest of us should learn to just ignore such people if we don’t like what they are saying.

Why Darwin is dangerous

In a previous post, I looked at why many Christians seemed to find Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to be so objectionable. After all, many theories of physics also lead to conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible. The answers that physics and chemistry and geology and astronomy give to the question of the ages of the Earth and the universe are reason enough for anyone who believes in a 10,000 year old Earth to reject all those disciplines wholesale. And yet, biology seems to be the sole target of Biblical literalists.
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Sudoku and scientific research

I have always liked logic puzzles. They exercise a curious fascination for me, extending even to my choice of reading. From the time I was very young, I was drawn to mystery novels of the Agatha Christie variety, which are essentially logic puzzles where the identity of the culprit is unknown until the end and the author lays out clues which the careful reader can use to solve the puzzle.

Needless to say, this extended to my choice of board games too, Clue and Master Mind being some of my favorites at one time. I also enjoy chess and card games like bridge, both of which contain a considerable element of puzzle solving.

So it should be no surprise that I have recently become addicted to doing the daily sudoku puzzle in the Plain Dealer. For those of you unfamiliar with this new craze, it is basically a logic puzzle consisting of 81 squares arranged in a 9×9 square grid in which about one-third of the squares contain numbers 1 through 9 from already filled in. The reader is required to fill in the rest containing subject to rules that are simple and can be found here.

The daily newspaper puzzle is labeled gentle, moderate, or diabolical, to indicate the expected level of difficulty, although the labeling does not always match my experience with the occasional diabolical being quite easy and the moderate quite hard.

The sudoku puzzles do not require any mathematics or even arithmetic to arrive at a solution. One could just as well do the puzzle with nine different fruits or symbols or whatever. But there is a lot of interesting underlying mathematics, and Brian Hayes has an interesting article in the January-February, 2006 issue of the American Scientist with a fascinating discussion of the mathematics of sudoku. involving such questions as how many different puzzles there are (Answer: 3,546,146,300,288) and what is the minimum amount of filled squares that must be initially provided so that there is a unique solution. It turns out that the latter question remains unsolved. “[T]he minimum number of givens is unknown. Gordon Royle of the University of Western Australia has collected more than 24,000 examples of uniquely solvable grids with 17 givens, and he has found none with fewer than 17, but a proof is lacking.” So there’s a nice challenge for the mathematically ambitious. Published problems usually have between 25 and 30 givens, with no simple correlation between the number of givens and the advertised level of difficulty.

One interesting question that the article does not answer is how the constructors of the puzzles know when they have given enough information so that there exists a unique solution. Do they have to work through the puzzles themselves and keep adding initial data until they have a unique solution? That seems tedious. In yesterday’s (January 31, 2005) Plain Dealer puzzle, it seemed to me that there were at least two solutions.

(The sudoku problems belong to a more general class of math problems associated with the term NP but there are some disagreements about whether it is NP or NP-hard or NP-complete, which I will leave to the more mathematically informed to figure out.)

After doing a few, it struck me that these puzzles are a good analogy for the way science research is done. Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that normal scientific research within a paradigm is largely a puzzle solving exercise in which there is an assurance that a solution exists to the problem and that it is only the ingenuity of the scientist that stands between her and a solution. The sudoku problem is like that. We know that a solution of a particular form exists and it is this belief that makes people persevere until they arrive at a solution.

Most of the sudoku solution strategy is deductive. One starts by filling in those empty squares with numbers that can be arrived at deductively, by rigorously ruling out all but the correct number. But in the more difficult puzzles, one reaches a stage where there may be two (or rarely) three possibilities for a crucial square and deductive logic alone cannot determine it. At that point, one has to resort to ‘hypothetico-deductive’ or ‘if-then’ reasoning. This kind of reasoning is an essential element of the scientific process. In scientific research one never knows exactly all the information needed to solve some problem. Hence one has to make reasonable assumptions about some things in order to proceed further and arrive at conclusions. And those assumptions can change in the light of new information.

Sudoku provides an example of this in that when one reaches such an impasse, one simply chooses one of the possible options and proceed to fill in all the rest of the squares using the standard deductive reasoning until either the puzzle is completed satisfactorily, confirming the correctness of the initial choice, or one runs into an obvious contradiction, indicating that one’s choice was mistaken and that one should have chosen the other option at the branch point.

In yet harder puzzles, one might encounter nested hypothetico-deductive situations, where after making one choice, one might encounter yet another impasse requiring another choice. Those are the hardest puzzles because they involve selecting between many possible options, each resulting in a different final solution. (As an aside, the mechanism of evolution by natural selection works similarly to this, with the choice options being provided by random genetic mutations and the choice being ‘made’ by natural selection.)

Scientific research is a lot like these harder sudoku puzzles, involving long chains of inferential reasoning, with assumptions being made along the way. One rarely arrives at solutions purely deductively, hence the popular notion of scientific truths being “proven” to be true is largely a mirage. There are always choices that have to be made at intervening stages. One has to make decisions as to what one assumes to be true and can be used as a basis for further investigations. Being able to do hypothetico-deductive reasoning is essential for science, and yet it is not skill we focus much on in our science teaching.

In doing this kind of hypothetico-deductive reasoning one also has to use one’s judgment and select which of the various possibilities is likely to be the most fruitful. Science also requires one to make such judgments and good scientists are those who, over time, develop a good ‘nose’ for which situations are best suited.

The extra wrinkle in scientific research that is not present in sudoku puzzles is that the correctness of the choice is also time-dependent. What may be a satisfactory choice at one time may turn out, in the light of subsequent research in a related field, to have been the wrong choice later. It is this kind of thing that causes the scientific community to sometimes reverse itself and declare that what was considered wrong once is now right and vice versa.

The hardest problems in science are those that challenge the very paradigm itself because then one is not guaranteed that a solution even exists. It is like working on a sudoku puzzle in which the data given may not be sufficient to guarantee the existence of a unique solution, or one in which the rules have changed but you are not aware of it. It takes a strong will and a great deal of perseverance to take on such problems. But it is just that kind of problem that leads to scientific revolutions.

POST SCRIPT: Warrantless wiretapping

Tom Tomorrow’s take on the NSA wiretapping story.